I caught up with Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino at Robert DeNiro's Tribeca Screening Room in New York the other night. I have to admit I was optimistic, given the fine reviews the movie has received. While in production, it didn't sound very promising. The title alone is rather vague with its bland reference to a 1972 car, which I learned to drive in (Not very well at the time, which may have explained my skepticism). However, Eastwood is a master at surprising the audience. Million Dollar Baby came out of nowhere with no fanfare and a title that made it sound like an old Busby Berkeley musical. Yet, it received universal critical acclaim and won the major Oscars that year. Gran Torino is a similar experience. Shot in a little over a month with very little publicity, this is the film that lured Eastwood back to acting after stating that Million Dollar Baby would be his last time before the cameras. Good thing he had a change of heart, as this is the performance of his career. Having grown up (literally) on Eastwood's films - and having been an childhood addict of the Leone Dollars films - I have always been an admirer of the iconic star. However, with few exceptions, I would not say any of his performances have been worthy of Oscar consideration. Certainly, he earned his nominations for his superb work in Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby. However, I always felt that -like John Wayne and Cary Grant- he was such a towering screen presence that audiences would never be able to accept him playing an everyday character like the guy next door. In Gran Torino he proves otherwise and delivers a performance of great depth and skill. He should be the front runner for the Best Actor Oscar, but his failure to nab a Golden Globe nomination may not bode well for the honor.
The film finds Eastwood, who refreshingly always plays his true age, as Walt Kowalski, a grumpy recently-widowed man who lives in a suburban Michigan neighborhood that is gradually being overtaken by Hmong immigrants. Kowalski, who worked fifty years on a Ford assembly line, can barely hide his disgust at feeling like a stranger in his own land. He mutters racial insults every time his neighbors set foot on is property and seems content to seal off the world and live out the rest of his days sitting on his front porch drinking cheap Pabst Blue Ribbon beer and smoking cigarettes. When some Hmong gangbangers try to forcibly recruit his teenage neighbor Thao (charismatic Bee Vang), Walt reluctantly intervenes, thus making him a hero to his grateful neighbors. He wants no part of them and shuts out their attempts to show their gratitude. When Thao is forced into making an ill-fated attempt to steal Walt's prized Gran Torino, the family makes the young man redeem his honor by having him work at odd-jobs at Walt's house. A tense relationship ensues, but ultimately Walt sees that the sensitive young man is doomed if he falls under the spell of the gangbangers. He gradually becomes a mentor and father figure to the young man and his older sister (superbly played by Ahney Her) and before long, Walt is a welcome, if awkward presence in his neighbor's house. Eastwood milks the subtle humor of this situation for all it's worth as he tries to open his eyes and accept the value of another culture. He realizes the Hmong are good people with the same values he has, but they are being terrorized by wayward members of their own community. When the threat becomes so implicit that it will destroy the young man he has mentored, Walt decides to take drastic action to resolve the situation in a highly creative manner.
Eastwood the director is at the top of his game here and does not spare Eastwood the actor any semblance of vanity. Almost defiantly proud of his 78 years of age, Eastwood has the camera focus in intense close-ups on his face, making it appear like a weather-beaten sail. The excellent script by novice screenwriter Nick Schenk has many parallels to John Wayne's final film The Shootist - and I'm amazed that no other critic I'm aware of has yet to point them out. The homage is certainly intentional. Consider:
In both films, an aging tough guy forms an unlikely friendship with a young man (Ron Howard in The Shootist) who is being lured into a wayward life style.
There is the presence of a strong female family member who encourages him to act as a mentor. (In the Wayne film, Lauren Bacall played Howard's mother). In Gran Torino, the role is given to Thao's sister.
In both films, the aging hero just wants to be left alone to live out his remaining days in solitude, but he becomes reluctantly drawn into a world of violence in order to protect the people he cares about.
There are also key scenes set in barber shops. In The Shootist, there is a humorous sequence in which Wayne's character humiliates a vulture-like undertaker played by John Carradine. In Gran Torino, the barber (John Carroll Lynch) is a friend of Walt's who helps him "initiate" young Thao into the world of real men by hurling good-natured, filthy ethnic insults at one another.
Finally, in The Shootist, the distressed Wayne character gets some solace and advice from a sympathetic doctor (James Stewart). In Gran Torino, it's a young priest (an excellent Christopher Carley) who manages to finally break through to Walt Kowalski.
The most obvious parallel to The Shootist is that it afforded John Wayne perhaps his greatest performance in the last movie he ever made. Fortunately, Eastwood is in able enough shape to continue directing films, but there is a real chance this might be his last acting role. If not, it will be hard to top. He magnificently manages to convey the image of an every day working stiff - and I knew he had succeeded when it didn't look silly or pretentious to see Clint Eastwood mowing a lawn (with a push mower, yet!). The film succeeds beautifully on all levels and puts to shame the over-produced, over-budgeted hokum coming out of most studios. Working mean and lean with members of his fabled Malpaso Productions, Eastwood manages to get superb performances from his entire cast. The ending is emotionally riveting, even when it takes a surprising turn. To top it off, Eastwood also wrote the haunting title song and croaks out part of it as well. Back in the early 1980s I wrote a book called The Films of Clint Eastwood. I remember my editor being astounded at its success. He said to me, "But you treated him like he was some kind of world-class filmmaker". I'd like to find that editor today and take him to a screening of Gran Torino to see his response. I'm not one for saying "I told you so" but in this case, it would be merited.- Lee Pfeiffer
Van Williams and Bruce Lee in the 1960s TV series version of The Green Hornet.
Just when you thought long-planned big screen version of The Green Hornet couldn't get any weirder, what with Seth Rogen playing the title role, comes news that the director, Stephen Chow (Kung-Fu Hustle) has quit the project over the usual "creative differences" but will stay on as an actor to play the role of Kato! Whatever they put onscreen can't be any stranger than the way the flick is shaping up. For more click here